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Just what do you get a 182-year-old for his birthday? Well, if it's Jonathan the giant tortoise, thought to be the world's oldest living land animal, a bunch of bananas or a few carrots would be perfect. But not too many—overindulging on anything but grass gives him an upset stomach.
Jonathan lives on St. Helena, a remote British-governed island in the South Atlantic where Napoleon was exiled in 1815 and died in 1821. No one knows precisely how he got there. His species, Dipsochelys hololissa, is native to the Seychelles, located in the Indian Ocean—thousands of miles away around the tip of Africa. Driven to near extinction by the mid-1800s, there are fewer than 15 Seychelles tortoises left, all in captivity. According to a recent profile of Jonathan by the BBC, tortoises were once stacked on trading ships as a convenient source of food. Somehow, he managed to escape becoming a sailor's dinner and ended up living nearly two peaceful centuries on the rolling lawn of Plantation House, the governor's mansion, along with four other tortoise companions, David, Emma, Fredrika, and Myrtle. His life has spanned the reigns of seven British monarchs, and he's seen 33 different governors of the island come and go.
Jonathan's age was calculated from an 1882 photograph, now lost, which purportedly showed him at about 50 years old. Giant tortoises can grow up to 600 pounds and have an average lifespan of 100 years. In 2006, a 175-year-old Galápagos tortoise named Harriet died at Australia Zoo. Another photo of Jonathan, taken around 1900, pictures him standing in front of a Boer War prisoner and guard. About 5,000 POWs were once held on the island.
Lumbering and blind, his shell and beak deteriorating, Jonathan still has a mating drive, believe it or not, although he has never produced offspring. "He is virtually blind from cataracts," Joe Hollins, the veterinarian who cares for the tortoises, told the BBC. "[He] has no sense of smell—but his hearing is good." Tortoises' beaks are made of keratin (the same fibrous protein as human fingernails). Because Jonathan's is breaking down, he has trouble rooting up the vegetation that is the mainstay of his diet. But he's well taken care of by the employees of Plantation House and is definitely a rock star on St. Helena.
Cruise ships anchor at the island, and overeager tourists often crowd the grounds to gawk at him. A viewing area has been set up for large groups, and on quiet days, individual visitors are asked to keep a respectful distance of at least 6 feet. That said, Jonathan, whom Hollins describes as a "poser" who enjoys human attention, sometimes sticks out his neck for a nice scratch.
As with any dignitary, there is already an obituary written for Jonathan, and the islanders are raising money for a life-size bronze statue to be created in his memory. "In truth he could die any day," Hollins told St Helena Online, a local news blog. "When the day comes, it will be an international news story."
— Sarah B. Weir
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Source: St. Helena Wirebird